Rail will never be as practical as roadways
Oahu’s H-3 freeway endured political controversy and major engineering challenges, such as the boring of two miles of tunnels through solid rock of the Koolau mountains and erecting 160-foot columns for the windward viaduct.
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Oahu’s H-3 freeway endured political controversy and major engineering challenges, such as the boring of two miles of tunnels through solid rock of the Koolau mountains and erecting 160-foot columns for the windward viaduct. Even so, the rail’s construction cost is exorbitant compared with the H-3’s — and that cost to local taxpayers, as explained below, shows how poor the rail choice was and how irrational it would be to continue.
If Mayor Kirk Caldwell is to be believed, the 20-mile elevated rail system will cost $10 billion from Kualakai Parkway to Ala Moana Center, minus $1.55 billion (hopefully) covered by the Federal Transit Administration; and about 15 percent paid by Oahu’s unsuspecting tourists. The rail guideway could instead be used to run buses, providing one traffic lane per direction for a total of two lanes. So its cost to the local taxpayer is $180 million per lane-mile.
The H-3 has two lanes per direction, four lanes total. Because the federal government provided 90 percent of its funding, the cost to local taxpayers was only $5 million per lane-mile, after being adjusted to 2017 using the Price Trends for Federal-Aid Highway Construction Index. Therefore, the lane-mile cost of rail to local taxpayers will be 34 times greater than the cost of the H-3.
The long-term cost difference is actually much greater when operating and maintenance costs are considered. Keeping the trains running will require an annual subsidy of $130 million, according to the city. This is dramatically higher than the annual cost of maintaining the H-3. This would be a new annual cost for Oahu, and it is roughly equal to the $150 million that the state Department of Transportation receives annually from the federal government.
But what about the benefits?
Unlike rail, H-3 connects to existing networks to provide door-to-door transportation options, which most residents and visitors require. Unlike rail, the H-3 directly benefits the military, emergency responders, police, commercial service providers, and public health officials.
The H-3 and other highways also facilitate public transportation by buses, taxi companies, ride-hailing services, and stand ready to serve the future dominance of autonomous, on-call vehicles. The vehicle fleet could be mostly electric in a few decades, which diminish the rail’s “green power” advantage claimed by its proponents.
Last but not least is the economy: Without roads, our economy is dead. Without rail, the economy is better off: That’s according to University of Hawaii economist James Roumasset, who explained that a project with benefits lower than its costs shrinks the economy and thereby shrinks employment. He also has pointed out how rail’s astronomical costs freeze out funding for the adoption of many sensible solutions to Oahu’s traffic congestion problem.
Efforts to continue rail past the intermodal transit center at Middle Street is wasteful and irresponsible public policy. No additional funds should be appropriated for rail. HART’s sole effort should be to bring the project to its end at Middle Street with the funds available, and use city funds for any shortage.
After the acceptance of the system for revenue service, HART should be dissolved; Oahu Transit Services should run all public transit so that good transportation service is provided islandwide. This would mitigate the problem experienced in other cities where the high costs of rail operations have resulted in major cuts of bus routes and service. (The rail’s final environmental impact statement states that 24 routes of TheBus will be eliminated or terminated at the nearest rail station.)
The costs of rail clearly show the massive present and future fiscal impact to Oahu and the state. The brave choice is to convert the project to an automated bus operation — but such bravery, imagination and public-duty responsibility are absent.
Panos Prevedouros is a civil engineering professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa; Cliff Slater, a retired Honolulu businessman, is a long-time antirail activist.